Proposal: Bald Butte Loop

Arrowleaf Balsamroot are the stars of the spring wildflower show

Each spring the parking lot at the Dog Mountain trailhead in the Columbia Gorge starts to look like Black Friday at a shopping mall: hundreds of hikers crowd the trail for the classic hike through steep meadows of blooming arrowleaf balsamroot. Who can blame them? The flower show is spectacular, even with the crowds.

But for those seeking a bit more solitude with their wildflowers — and equally impressive views — the hike up Bald Butte in the nearby Hood River Valley is a fine alternative to Dog Mountain. The blooms usually come a few weeks later here, toward the end of May and into June. Because Bald Butte lies well east of the Cascade crest, the weather is usually better here, too.

The beautiful flower display on Bald Butte frames sweeping views of Mount Hood and the Hood River Valley

Measured in travel time from the heart of Portland, Bald Butte is a bit more distant than Dog Mountain. But the somewhat longer drives includes the gorgeous final stretch up the Hood River Valley, which is a treat in itself for hikers.

Diamond in the Rough

So, why doesn’t the Bald Butte trail see more boot traffic? One answer could be the upper trailhead, which is accessed off Surveyors Ridge Road and is the unintended gateway for 4x4s, dirt bikes and quads to illegally enter the area. While the area trails are only open to hikers, bikes and horses, motorized vehicles continue to be a problem.

This 4x4 is driving illegally on the “trail” to Bald Butte

A second reason for fewer visitors at Bald Butte might be the quality of the “trail” from the upper trailhead to the summit. Here, the route officially follows the Surveyors Ridge Trail (No. 688), though the “trail” is actually an old dirt road that once served as access to a fire lookout on the summit of Bald Butte.

The road is not only difficult to enforce as a “trail”, it also provides a substandard hiking surface in many spots, with the illegal OHV use destroying the surface, and leaving a difficult mess of loose cobbles and ruts for hikers to navigate.

OHV damage to the “trail” at Bald Butte will likely require some sections to simply be closed and rehabilitated

Finally, the trail is bisected by the monstrous Bonneville Power Administration transmission corridor. This visual and ecological calamity came into being with the completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957, and is only surpassed by the dam, itself, for the negative impacts it brings to the area (see [link= Corridor Redux[/link]

The BPA Transmission Corridor is a manageable eyesore

Despite these drawbacks, the hike is a spectacular one, and fills a unique niche by providing an early season mountain hike when many trails in the area are still snowed in.

More importantly, there are straightforward solutions for resolving these drawbacks, and thus the Bald Butte trail represents a diamond-in-the-rough opportunity, just waiting to shine. This article proposes a few the solutions that could greatly enhance the hiking experience on Bald Butte, while also mitigating some of the environmental problems that currently exist.

A new vision for Bald Butte

Spring wildflower spectacle on the slopes of Bald Butte

This proposal addresses four issues that currently diminish the Bald Butte trail:

1. Formalizes and manages the upper trailhead to prevent OHVs from straying onto trails.

2. Replaces sections of “road” that currently serve as “trail”.

3. Improves the hiking experience where the route crosses the BPA corridor.

4. Establishes a loop trail system that allows for better mixing of bikes and hikers.

Above all, the new trail connections in this proposal enhance the scenic experience for hikers by simply bringing them through more of the open meadows that are the main attraction — just as the newer, redesigned trails on Dog Mountain focus on the meadows and river views.

The following maps show these key elements for improving the trails at Bald Butte. The major new addition would be a loop trail starting at the lower end of the Oak Ridge Trail, and climbing the open slopes of Bald Butte.

[click here for a larger map]

The Surveyors Ridge Trail from the upper trailhead to the summit, where it follows the old road, would be converted to become a true trail. The new sections would be built across the BPA Corridor and along the south summit approach to Bald Butte. The current dirt road segments could then be completely decommissioned, giving the butte a much-needed rest from off-highway vehicles.

[click here for a larger map]

The BPA corridor, itself, would also be managed differently. Under this proposal, the Bonneville Power Administration would designate a scenic unit where the transmission corridor passes over the shoulder of Bald Butte. The agency would then manage the vegetation under the transmission lines with an eye toward integrating the corridor with the adjacent forests and meadows, and providing the best possible hiking experience.

This element of the proposal could be a pilot project for better management of BPA tranmission corridors in other areas, with new best-management practices developed to address OHVs, dumping, invasive species and other nuisances that tend to follow the BPA corridors. The proposed scenic unit is shown in purple on the proposal maps.

The main draw in the proposal would be a new trail crossing the open slopes of Bald Butte. This is an exceptionally scenic area, and the trail concept could be patterned after the “new” trail on Dog Mountain, with an eye toward creating a world-class hiking experience.

[click here for a larger map]

In addition to the spring wildflower spectacle, this expanded trail system on Bald Butte would provide a nearly year-round hiking and biking opportunity. The loop design would also allow for bikes to remain on the Oak Ridge Trail, with the new trail limited to hikers. This would allow hikers looking for a loop trip to use both trails, but reserving the new route for those uneasy with shared hike/bike routes.

Finally, the upper trailhead would be retained in this proposal, despite the problems it currently brings with illegal activity. The short access road to the trailhead is unsigned, poorly maintained and the surrounding area is in a raw, semi-developed state that sets the stage for the unlawful activities that occur here.

To help remedy the situation, the trailhead could be formalized and improved to appeal to legitimate forest visitors — families looking for a shorter hike or bike to the summit of Bald Butte or along the Surveyor’s Ridge Trail, for example. Despite the presence of the BPA towers, the view toward Mount Hood from the upper trailhead is sweeping, and could even serve as a picnic site or more formal viewpoint for motorists touring the area.

How to Visit Bald Butte Now

There is no need to wait until the trails at Bald Butte have been improved, as the current routes provide for terrific hike, especially in spring and early summer.

The Oak Ridge Trail serves as the first leg of the hike, beginning from the trailhead of the same name, just off Highway 35. The route then follows the Surveyors Ridge Trail past the BPA corridor and to the summit, following the old lookout road for the final segment.

A detailed hike description, with maps and photos is provided on the Portland Field Guide:

Bald Butte Hike Description


The Tollgate Maples… and the Highway

The two remaining Tollgate maples

Last week, the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) jointly announced that the main trunk of one of two remaining Barlow Road Tollgate heritage maple trees would be coming down soon:

“A 130-year-old bigleaf maple, which marks the spot of the western-most tollgate of the historic Barlow Road, has substantial decay and poses a hazard to travelers on U.S. Highway 26 (Mt. Hood Highway). The tree is planned to be felled within the next three weeks.”

(download the press release here)

On its face, the decision is both reasonable and expected. The maples were planted in the 1880s by tollgate keeper Daniel Parker, and have lived the typical lifespan of our native bigleaf maple. A third maple apparently survived until the mid-1990s, and along with the tree that will soon be removed, framed the old tollhouse that once stood on the north side of the tollgate (where the highway is located, now).

The large trunk on the right will be removed, but the three smaller trunks on the left will be spared

The good news is that the tree will live on, through suckers that have grown to become three separate trunks – a typical form for bigleaf maples. From the press release:

“The old bigleaf maple to be felled has several stems: a main stem, with a diameter of 25 inches, and three smaller 4- to 6-inch diameter stems growing from the base of the trunk. These three smaller stems, each about 25 feet tall, will be untouched by the project, while the decaying main stem will be reduced to a height of two to three feet.”

Hopefully the companion tree on the south side of the gate will also survive through new stems someday growing from its base. This is the larger of the two trees, and because of its distance from the highway, will be allowed to grow undisturbed.

The remaining maple is far enough from the road that it will be allowed to remain, undisturbed

As trees around Mount Hood go, the two maples at Tollgate aren’t particularly remarkable — there are plenty of larger, older and more impressive bigleaf maple trees growing in less traveled areas of the surrounding forests. The uniqueness of these trees, of course, is the tie to the Oregon Trail, itself, a piece of Amercian history that is deeply embedded in our cultural identity.

Sam Barlow’s Road

Most Oregonians know the story of Sam Barlow, and his daring expedition over the shoulder of Mount Hood with Joel Palmer in the fall of 1845, in search of a land route through the Cascades.

Sam Barlow and his legendary road

By 1846, the route the two men had scouted and led their own wagons over had become a business venture for Barlow: a notoriously rough toll road that thousands of Oregon settlers would travel over in the years that followed. Many described it as the worst part of their 2,000-mile journey.

The tollgate site marked by the twin maples was the final location of at least five tollgate sites that existed along the Barlow Road over the years, with this final tollgate operating from 1883 to 1918. The gatekeeper charged $5 per wagon, with smaller fees for livestock, foot travelers and even the first automobile, which arrived at the tollgate in 1903. This was a handsome price in its day, but for most travelers, it was also a one-time charge on the way to the Willamette Valley.

The Tollgate wayside fronts one of the few remaining Highway 26 segments that has remained largely unchanged little since the first highway was built in the 1920s

As the toll road era faded away in the early 1900s, plans for the first loop highway around the mountain were underway, and much of the new route followed the original Barlow Road when first leg was completed in the 1920s.

Because the Barlow Road had a number of evolving alignments over the years, many traces of the route survived the highway-building era, and can still be seen today. The original loop highway was used through the 1950s, and was then replaced with the modern alignment we know today.

The Future of Barlow Road… and Highway 26?

The tentative tone in the opening paragraph if this article stems from the terrible record ODOT and the Forest Service have in protecting the historic, scenic and environmental legacy of the Barlow Road corridor.

Highway 26 “improvement” just east of Tollgate in 2004

While the Forest Service and ODOT have made a reasonable case for removing the heritage maple at the Tollgate site, the agency has a long history of aggressive, senseless tree removals along the Mount Hood Loop. Most of this sad legacy stems from ODOT’s unstated objective to widen the highway to four lanes through the entire Mount Hood corridor at all costs — usually cloaked as a “safety” or “preservation” projects to ensure that their policy makers and the general public don’t get in the way of the underlying road widening mission that continues to drive the agency.

One strategy used by highway engineers to ease the path toward eventual road widening is to cut trees way back along highway sections in advance, as a divide-and-conquer strategy. The goal is to avoid jeopardizing a future road-widening project with public outcry over tree removal.

This practice is also rationalized under the “safety” banner, but actually encourage speeding by removing the traffic calming effect that a tree canopy creates. The use of street trees and landscaping in urban areas to discourage speeding is a widespread and fully accepted practice in the modern transportation design, but clearly hasn’t penetrated the ODOT offices yet.

Highway 35 “improvement” currently underway near Hood River Meadows is predictably cutting trees back from the roadway

In 2004, ODOT cleared the shoulders along several sections of US 26 in the vicinity of the Tollgate site, and one concern in hearing the news of the heritage tree is that this project is a precursor to tree removal along this final stretch of mostly original highway, where big trees still grow near the road.

The unstated ODOT mission to widen the loop highway to an urban freeway standard is described in detail in these earlier WyEast Blog articles:

• Highway 26 Widening – Part One

• Highway 26 Widening Projects – Part Two

• Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

Unfortunately, the projects described in these articles continue to advance, with a few cosmetic details thrown in to keep them moving. Sadly, they represent almost $30 million in public dollars that will make the highway a lot more like an urban freeway, while ignoring their own consultant recommendations for far less costly, more effective safety solutions.

The first phase of ODOT’s “safety and preservation” work is slated to begin just east of Tollgate this summer, and — right on schedule — the project has already been “updated” to include widening for a new westbound travel lane, along with “separate projects to remove select trees for safety reasons.” Just as predicted.

A New Vision for the Mount Hood Loop

The beautiful wayside at Tollgate is a great example of the very kind of feature that ought to be the focus of a tourism-oriented highway design along the Mount Hood Loop. Yet ODOT is about to make changes to the highway that will make it much less friendly for visitors. Is there an alternative?

1950s Mount Hood Loop wayside at White River

In a coming piece, I’ll present a different vision for the Mount Hood Loop that rejects the current ODOT plans for road widening, and the dubious “safety” claims that ODOT officials are using to cloak nearly $30 million in projects that will turn the corridor into a freeway.

This alternative vision will offer a less costly, sustainable long-term design that actually IS safer, and also much more enjoyable for the visitors to the mountain that drive the local economy.

Gorge Aspen Colony

Quaking Aspen grove near Bridal Veil

Just east of Bridal Veil on the Historic Columbia River Highway, a colony of white-barked Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) suddenly appear along the road, seemingly transported from somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Though these are North America’s most widespread tree species, they are uncommon in Western Oregon.

Many who spot these unlikely trees might reasonably assume they were intentionally planted here, given the nearby residential district. That’s possible, but it’s more likely that this is a native stand, one of only a few sprinkled on the western fringes of the aspen range, where it extends south from Canada along the eastern crest of the Cascades.

Quaking Aspen appear suddenly along the Scenic Highway near Bridal Veil (Google Streetview)

The stand is easy to find: drive one-third mile beyond the Angels Rest trailhead in the Bridal Veil area and watch for the trees on the south side of the road. There’s room to pull off, but use caution before wading in — this might be the only Aspen grove in Oregon with knee-deep poison oak! The stand is also fringed with lupine, coltsfoot and many other wildflowers in mid-spring, making for a dramatic scene.

Why Here?

Topographic maps give a hint as to why Aspen would grow here: marshy, river bottom soils, cool mountain air flowing off Larch Mountain and down Coopey Canyon and the generally brisk Gorge winters mimic prime aspen habitat. The grove also appears to be on public land, within Shepperds Dell State Park (see map, below).

The Quaking Aspen grove is near Coopey Creek, below Angels Rest

It’s hard to know the future of Oregon’s aspen trees, given the expected effects of climate change on most northern species. The following map shows just how fragile the aspens along the Cascade Range are compared to the broad habitat found in the Rockies, Great Lakes region and Canada:

North American extent of Quaking Aspen (Wikimedia)

Even more isolated and fragile are the groves that dot the basin and range country of Southeast Oregon. These are the aspens growing on alpine islands in the desert, including Steens Mountain, Hart Mountain and a few other tall peaks in the high desert country.

Ecology of the Aspen

The name “Quaking Aspen” comes from the unique trembling that the slightest breeze creates among the leaves of Aspen trees. This is also where the botanical name of “tremuloides” is derived.

The “quaking” comes from flattened petiole, or stem, that connects the leaves to tree branches, and vibrates in the wind. The soft rustling is unmistakable to anyone who has spent time in Aspen country. Though Aspen are famous for their brilliant yellow fall color, the Gorge grove tends to be a paler yellow, possibly reflecting the milder fall temperatures at the site, compared to typical Aspen habitat.

Quaking Aspen leaves

Quaking Aspen reproduce mostly through root sprouts, with the young trees called “clones”, since they are genetically identical, and usually still connected to the parent tree. Whole groves of Aspen often consist of clones from a single originating tree, and share a single root system, and are thus called clone colonies.

This shared root system help explain why these colonies leaf out in spring and abruptly turn color in the fall as a complete unit, but often out of sync with nearby colonies running on their own clock.

Moss on Aspen trees: a uniquely Oregon thing?

The survival advantage of a clone colony can be seen in the Pando colony in Southern Utah, located high on the Colorado Plateau. Scientists estimate the 100-acre colony to have nearly 50,000 individual “stems” (trees) in the grove, all sharing a common root system. Amazingly, the root system is estimated to be at least 80,000 years old, with some scientists estimating the colony to be over million years old. This makes the Quaking Aspen both the oldest and largest organism on the planet, as defined by a continuously living DNA marker.

One disadvantage of clone colonies is that Aspen trees come in male and female varieties, and thus the clones in a colony are usually the same sex, making seed production more difficult.

Young Aspen clones emerging at the edge of the grove

Even when Aspen seeds are produced, they lack sufficient food and coating to make them durable enough to survive for long in harsh environments. This could be why Aspen rarely grow from seed, but also underscores the vulnerability of the species, since seed reproduction allows a species to migrate much more quickly in period of rapid climate change.

Aspen Die-Off

Older Aspens dying off in Southern Colorado (USFS)

In the mid-1990s, scientists began to notice a mass die-off in Quaking Aspen trees across the Western US. Often, the older trees in a grove were afflicted, but increasingly, entire clone colonies have died. There are a variety of theories about the decline, though most attribute it to a combination of changing climate and a century of fire suppression.

Like most western trees, Aspen are well adapted to fire, and quickly spring back after a burn, since the common root system of a colony is generally left unscathed, even if fire kills most of the trees growing from the root system. Under this theory, the die-off is a response to older Aspen groves simply outliving their viability, and abruptly falling victim to disease.

Entire Aspen groves dying in New Mexico (USFS)

Another theory focuses on the drought conditions that have plagued the west during the past two decades. Some scientists believe this has simply left Aspen too stressed to cope with insects and diseases that normally not be life-threatening to the trees. One study showed that more than 80% of the die-off has occurred in areas predicted to lose Aspen trees as a result of climate change — usually south-facing and lower-elevation habitats. This evidence also reinforces the risks that climate change will eventually bring for the Aspen forests.

Yet another theory is that over-grazing is causing the decline, with young tree sprouts being grazed before they can reach maturity, and replace older trees within a grove. In a unique study of wolves at Yellowstone, a variation on this research showed the same relationship where deer and elk populations were not checked by predators, causing a similar decline in Aspen colonies.

The phenomenon is now known collectively as “Sudden Aspen Decline”, and is the focus of much concern among researchers.

Though the die-off seems to be slowing in recent years, thanks to record rainfall in several previously drought-stricken areas, the damage has been extensive: Colorado has lost nearly 500,000 acres of aspen since the die-off began, or nearly 20 percent of its standing aspen. Other Rocky Mountain stands show similar damage, with scientists estimating that Aspen groves surviving today accounting for just 40% of what stood in the mid-1800s.

The Future of the Gorge Aspen?

Aspen can’t compete for long with Bigleaf Maple (seen in background) and other large species

The recent ecology of Aspen in the west is alarming, but researchers are busy looking for answers. In Oregon, studies are underway on the resiliency of Quaking Aspen in the Warner and Trout Creek mountains, and Oregon State University is providing ongoing research with The Aspen Project.

And what is the future of the Aspen grove near Bridal Veil? The good news is the trees seem to be on public land, and thus easier to protect and manage. New clones can also be seen growing at the edge of the stand, though the trees still face heavy competition from a thicket of underbrush, and a growing canopy of big conifers and Bigleaf Maple. In the long term, these Aspen won’t survive the competition unless the colony is actively managed to help them survive.

The western-most Quaking Aspen grove?

Other small Aspen stands dot the Gorge and the western foothills of Mount Hood, including one emerging stand along US 26, just east of Gresham, that might just be the western-most in the state. Much larger stands flank the east slope of the Cascades in places like the Hood River Valley, Metolius River and Klamath Lake.

While these isolated stands are small and remote from the prime Aspen habitat of the Rockies and Canada, that could be a very good reason to help them survive: it’s possible that these intrepid Oregon Aspen will be better situated to survive climate change, and may represent a genetic insurance policy for the species.

Scientists are learning much about Aspen and how to perpetuate the species in the face of the die-off. Hopefully, Oregon’s public land managers will also apply these lessons to the tiny, isolated healthy stands in places like the Gorge, as one more safeguard for an increasingly vulnerable species.